Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 17

For the Russian military, August was a month dominated by the loss of the Kursk and the recriminations that surrounded the navy’s feeble effort to rescue the sub’s doomed crew. After nearly a year in which the Chechen war effort, Russian opposition to NATO operations in Yugoslavia, and the frequent praise of emergent Russian leader Vladimir Putin had served to restore to the High Command some of its Soviet-era swagger, the Kursk disaster was a sudden and sharp reminder of all that remains wrong with the Russian armed forces and with civil-military relations in Russia more generally. In the space of a few days the Russian people and the world community became witness not only to the navy’s manifold incapacities and the shabbiness that characterizes so much of Russian military life, but also to the deceitfulness of the military leadership and its enduring contempt for the people in its own ranks.

For Putin, who responded with much-criticized casualness to the Kursk disaster, the sub incident was a major political setback that took some of the sheen off his presidency. After several months in which his diplomatic performances yielded one seeming triumph after another, the Kursk debacle left him weakened on the eve of visits to Japan and to the UN Millennial summit in New York.

It is difficult to sum up all that the Kursk disaster has meant for military politics in Russia. Defense Ministry lies delayed rescue efforts and probably doomed whatever slight chance there was to rescue sailors who might have survived the initial explosions that sent the Kursk to the floor of the Barents Sea. This dissimulation by military spokesmen outraged the public and led ultimately to charges from some of the Norwegian and British personnel who aided the rescue effort that Russian lies may also have endangered the lives of their divers.

Efforts to determine the cause of the disaster, meanwhile, turned into an unseemly game of buck-passing. Defense Ministry claims that an American or British sub was the likely cause of the Kursk accident appeared to ignore available evidence to the contrary and to be aimed primarily at absolving the Navy of responsibility. Those claims were also contradicted by several influential Russian political and military figures, who denounced the naval exercise which doomed the Kursk and pointed the finger of blame instead at the High Command’s alleged negligence. Meanwhile, the Russian rumor mill worked overtime regarding the possibility that the Kursk crew had been conducting risky tests on a new torpedo, one which the Navy considered unsafe and which it had been compelled to deploy because of pressure from the defense industrial sector.